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Art and Culture


Gallo-Roman Era

Despite the institutionalised vandalism of the 19C, many examples still remain of the arts which flourished in the Roman colony of Aquitaine, the capitals of which were Bordeaux, Poitiers and Saintes. The ruins of amphitheatres, theatres, temples and bathhouses, and votive arches scattered throughout these areas offer a broad view of Gallo-Roman civilisation.

Romanesque Period (11C–12C)

After the turbulent period of the early Middle Ages, marked by conflicts between the great feudal houses, the year AD 1000 saw a renewal of faith exemplified in the Crusades and the great pilgrimages. In the southwest of France the most important religious sanctuaries were all built along the routes leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain .

Church Design

In Poitou, Romanesque churches generally comprised a high, barrel-vaulted central nave, buttressed by side aisles of almost equal height.

Light entered through the window bays of these aisles. In Angoumois and Saintonge (the regions around Angoulême and Saintes) the wide, single nave was sometimes barrel-vaulted, sometimes topped by a line of domes showing influence from the Périgord region.

West Fronts

The façades were characterised by arcades or tiers of blind arcades. Arcading at the upper level was nevertheless typical more in Angoumois and Saintonge, whereas churches in Poitou were often distinguished by a tripartite division vertically, with large arcades separated by columnar buttresses (Notre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers is an exception).

The west front was usually surmounted by a triangular pediment and flanked by columns or groups of columns sometimes crowned by pierced lanterns with conical roofs. These roofs, and often those of the church belfries, would be covered by overlapping tiles. The façade itself was normally decorated with statues and low relief sculptures, intended to deliver a message. Notre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers is a successful example of these façade-screens; the Biblical stories depicted on the façade are easily identified and understood.

In Angoumois the west fronts are more sober, although that of St-Pierre in Angoulême is famed for its depiction, through 70 different characters, of the Ascension and the Last Judgement.

East Ends

Churches with an ambulatory at their east end and radiating chapels buttressed by columns are common in Poitou: St-Hilaire, in Melle, is typical. Certain east ends in Saintonge, on the other hand, were built to a simpler design, like the church at Rioux, with a five-faced apse and columnar buttresses; the bays separating the columns have archivolts at the middle level, decorated with a row of blind arcades and miniature columns above. The whole is topped by an elegant frieze running beneath a cornice with carved, double scroll brackets.


The use of sculpture on façades, east ends, corbels, arches, consoles and capitals, was facilitated by the nature of the local limestone, which is relatively easy to work; Romanesque edifices are notable for the abundance, variety and finesse of the religious ornamentation. On these surfaces foliage, acanthus leaves in the antique style and pre-Romanesque plaited stonework rival in complexity images of oriental monsters, biblical illustrations, legends of the saints and scenes of everyday life.

One of the most lavishly decorated west fronts in the Poitou area is that of Notre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers; however, it is the Saintonge that is best known for its wealth of sculpted décor. While the richness of the overall decoration can be almost overwhelming, it is also worth looking closely at the wonderful individual details.

Frescoes and Mural Paintings

A fresco (from the Italian word fresco mean­ing fresh) is a wall or ceiling painting executed on a surface of freshly applied, still-damp plaster, into which the design is incorporated before the plaster dries. The number of colours that can be used is limited, since only pigments made from natural earths and iron oxides suit the technique.

The most extraordinary murals of the Poitou School are found in St-Savin, where the compositions are remarkable as much for the beauty of the colours, the harmony of the design and the perfection of the technique as for their lively content.

From Romanesque to Gothic: the Plantagenet Style

In the west of France the Plantagenet style, also known as Angevin , marked the transition between Romanesque and Gothic styles. This architectural style reached its peak at the beginning of the 13C and had died out by the end of the century.

Angevin Vaulting

In normal Gothic vaulting all the keys are situated at approximately the same height. Plantagenet architecture, however, is characterised by steeply recessed quadripartite vaulting – probably derived from an earlier use of the dome – in which the keystones of the diagonals are higher than the stringer or transverse keys by as much as 3m/10ft.

At the end of the 12C these Angevin vaults became lighter as the number of ribs increased and arched more gracefully, springing from slender circular columns. The early 13C saw the style at its finest, the tall, slim pillars supporting an airy tracery of lierne vaulting.

Examples of the style can be seen in Vendée, Poitou (Poitiers Cathedral, Airvault, St-Jouin-de-Marnes southeast of Thouars), Saintonge and as far away as the region around the Upper Garonne.

Gothic Period (12C–15C)

Apart from its appearance in the Plantagenet style, which nevertheless retains many elements of the Romanesque, Gothic art raised scarcely an echo in the west and southwest of France; such examples as there are tend to be Southern Gothic, the style of the Mediterranean, characterised by a single, very wide nave and no transept. Certain English influences are evident in the square, Flamboyant towers of a few 14C and 15C churches in the Saint­onge (St-Eutrope in Saintes, Marennes).

Renaissance Period

Renaissance ideas were first introduced to France following the Italian wars at the end of the 15C.

Although this new style did not take hold overnight, the arrival of a score of Neapolitan artists brought from Italy by Charles VIII at the end of 1495 brought new life to French architecture.

Civil Architecture

The Renaissance style was brought to the west by members of the court of François I, who were natives of the Saintonge or Angoumois regions and had been influenced by the architecture of the Loire Valley. The François I Wing of the Château d’Oiron, for example, displays a characteristic series of basket-handled arches, whereas the Château de la Roche­foucauld, with its celebrated courtyard surrounded by a three-tiered gallery, is reminiscent of an Italian palazzo.

Extensive use of decorative arabesques and grotesques, as well as hints of Antiquity, distinguishes the châteaux of Dampierre-sur-Boutonne, Oiron and Usson: the roofs are tall, with all the slopes on each side at the same angle; the inclusion of splendid staircases accounts for the pro­jecting façades of the central blocks.

Similar features can be found in other châteaux of the region – the old royal Castle in Cognac, for instance (guard-room and gallery) – or in such Renaissance mansions as the Hôtel Fumé in Poitiers and the Hôtel St-Simon in Angoulême.

Classical Period

The accession of the Bourbon dynasty in 1589, following the era of stagnation that characterised French art and architecture towards the end of the Renaissance, heralded a radical shift in direction: the period of material prosperity that coincided with the reign of Henri IV fired artists eager for change with new ideas and new interpretations of classical, antique themes. Classical art held sway in France from 1589 to 1789.

Classical Fortifications

From the 16C onwards fortifications were constructed above all to protect frontier towns, and consisted of curtain walls and bastions surmounted by platforms from which cannon could be fired. Overhanging turrets allowed the defenders to survey the surrounding ditches and keep watch over the terrain beyond.

The acknowledged master of fortifications was Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707). Developing the ideas of his predecessors – military engineers employed by the King – he evolved a system based on the use of massive bastions complemented by ravelins or demilunes, the whole being protected by very deep defensive ditches. Vauban’s designs are notable for the way he made use of natural obstacles, used only local materials and added aesthetic value to the functional works he produced, incorporating monumental stone entrance gates, often adorned with sculpture.

His talent can be admired at Blaye, where the citadel protecting the entrance to the port of Bordeaux is part of a complex defence system; further south, Bayonne and Navarrenx (south of Orthez) are also examples of the genius of this great military architect.

Basque Religious Architecture in the 17c

Most of the churches in the Basque Country were renovated during the period of the Council of Trent (1545–63), which generated a movement within the Catholic clergy and laity for widespread religious renewal and reform that yielded substantial results in the 17C, even affecting religious architecture. In this region, the belfry is a particularly distinguishing element. Around La Soule, a distinctive form of belfry-calvary is common, such as the one in Gotein. The flattened belfry rises up like a wall, with three pointed gables, each crowned with a cross.

The shape symbolises the Holy Trinity, whereas the crosses recall Jesus and the two thieves crucified. In lower Navarre and Labourd, the belfry-wall is rounded, resembling the fronton of a pilota court. Certain churches have massive, tiered belfry-porches . Often the porch, whatever its dimensions, is surmounted by a room used to hold town council meetings or catechism classes.

In the northern Basque regions of Labourde and Basse Navarre, the inner layout is characteristic: a wide nave is surrounded by two or three tiers of galleries ,which are in theory reserved for men. The pulpit is integrated into the lower gallery. The main altar is often monumental baroque in style, a profusion of gilding, sculpture, curls and wreaths typical of Catholic baroque churches all over Europe.

In the cemeteries, the oldest and most remarkable tombstones – some dating from before the 16C – are known as discoidal tombstones: atop a plinth, a round, flat stone is often carved with a swastika figure, or cruz gammata , believed to have been a symbol of solar power and movement, possibly of Hindu origin.

The exact source of the design remains a subject of speculation and debate, along with the many other unique aspects of Basque culture.

1830–1930: Architecture on the Atlantic Coast

19C Eclecticism

In the 19C, European architecture was characterised by a penchant for eclecticism, bringing styles from the past (Antique, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Classical) back into fashion, and borrowing largely from foreign architectural styles, especially those of the Far East. Such buildings are found from the Gironde to the Basque Country, along the shore and in spa towns in the Pyrénées. Some of them are highly original, many are luxurious villas, lending their image to the reputation of certain resorts.

In the Bordeaux area, Neoclassicism is the dominant architectural style (early 19C), especially in the châteaux of local wine growers. But some odd mixtures can be found here as well, as at the Château Lanessan,where the Spanish Renaissance meets Dutch tradition, or the Cos d’Estourel, rising pagoda-like from the vines.

The popular Bassin d’Arcachon inspired a building boom in the 19C, as holiday homes owned by families from Bordeaux went up in styles ranging from the Algerian villa to the Swiss chalet, the Basque house to the English cottage. These hideaways can still be seen around Cap Ferret and in the Ville d’Hiver section of town, so successfully promoted by the Péreire brothers.

Biarritz became a fashionable seaside resort thanks, in part, to Napoleon III and his Neoclassical Villa Eugénie. Luxury beach houses in a range of different styles were built right up to the 1930s: the Villa de la Roche-Ronde is neo-Medieval (towers and look-outs); the Boulard château (1870–71) neo-Renaissance; and the Françon Villa adopts the Old England look. In Hendaye, the Château d’Abbadia is influenced by Gothic architecture. Its interior is inspired by Moorish architecture, a style also in evidence at the Casino de la Plage.

Art Deco

This 20C style is most evident along the Basque coast: the town casino, the Maritime Museum (1932–35) and the interior decoration of private homes in Biarritz; the Atrium Casino (1928) and the Splendid Hotel (1932) in Dax; the Leïhora Villa (1926–28) in Ciboure. Like the Art Nouveau movement which preceded it, Art Deco draws from Classical motifs, but they are reduced to geometric stylisations, and the noodle, whiplash, tapeworm, and cigarette-smoke style curves of Art Nouveau give way to straight and pure lines. Architects used wrought-iron, glass (creating luminous rooms within buildings) and ceramics to express these colourful designs.

During the 1920s and 1930s, villas built in Hossegor, in the Landes region, were inspired by rural houses of the Basque Country and a neo-regional style developed, which combined timber-framing, typical brick bond from the Landes, overhanging roofs, projecting load bearing walls and white roughcast façades with Art Deco ornamentation.

Medieval Town Planning

Military Architecture

From the 9C to the 12C the weakness and remoteness of the central power in medieval France contributed to the establishment of powerful dukedoms and counties. When the enforced feudalism began to crumble, one of the results was a generalised increase in the scattering of new strongholds.

Fortresses proliferated in the south west and in particular in the former Aquitaine, which had been disputed for three centuries by two different crowns. Outside the towns where, through the consolidation of existing Gallo-Roman protective enclosures, defence could usually be assured, crude new strongholds spread across the open countryside. Com­prising a surrounding ditch, a palisade, and a wooden tower (later built of stone) rising on a hillock, these fortresses provided basic refuge for local inhabitants.


Rectangular keeps built of stone made their appearance in the early 11C. They initially had a purely defensive role: the stonework was not particularly thick and there were no loopholes from which to fire at the enemy. The ground-floor level, which was dark, served as a store. The keep could only be entered at first-floor level, via either a ladder or a retractable footbridge. This design (illustrated by the keep at Bassoues), which persisted until the 14C, explains why the spiral stone staircases of so many of these structures only started at the higher level.

Before the Hundred Years’ War there was a 13C–14C Gascon variant of the keep known as a salle – a fortified dwelling flanked by one or two rectangular towers, set along the diagonal. Again, only the upper storeys were inhabited and provided with windows.

Castles of Brick

Certain castles in the Béarn district bear the trademark of Sicard de Lordat , a military engineer employed by Gaston Fébus, the 14C overlord of Béarn. For reasons of economy they were built of brick rather than massive stonework. The single square tower astride a poly­gonal defensive perimeter served both as a keep and as a gateway. The living quarters and the barracks were built against the inside of the curtain wall.

Fortified Churches

Fortress-churches occupy a special place in the history of French military architecture, and are numerous in the south west. Two types of machicolation were employed in their construction: the classic variety supported by corbels, and another in the form of arches curving between the buttresses (as at Beaumont-de-Lomagne). They appeared for the first time in France in the late 12C, in the Langue d’Oc country.

The churches were traditionally places of asylum with their robust architecture and their belfries which could be used as watchtowers; moreover the Truce of God ordered by the Vatican Council in the 10C and 11C stipulated a “zone of inviolability”, extending for 30 paces around each church, in which refugees might not be touched. The Council’s orders forbade the waging of war on certain days of the week and during Advent, Lent and Easter week. Violation of the Truce was punished with excommunication.

Examples of these fortified churches still exist in the Upper Pyrénées, in the valleys once subject to cross-frontier raids from Aragon; the best known are Luz Church, enclosed within a crenellated curtain wall, and Sentein Church, which has three towers.

New Towns of the Middle Ages

Medieval urban development in southwestern France has left only three sites still substantial enough today to be called towns: Montauban (southeast of Agen), founded by the Comte de Toulouse in 1144; the lower part of Carcassonne (1247), built on the west bank of the Aude by St Louis to shelter the homeless after the town was sacked; and Libourne (east of Bordeaux), named after Sir Roger Leyburn, Seneschal to Edward I of England (1270) (for details of Montauban and Carcassone. Aquitaine, however, at first strewn with sauvetés and castelnaux (refuges and fortified towns), was above all characterised by an abundance of new towns known as bastides – semi-urban, semi-rural settlements which were characterised by a geometric ground plan. Many of these small country towns and villages have retained their traditional character and original layout.

Sauvetés and Castelnaux (11C and 12C)

The Sauveté (including Sauvetat and Sauveterre) usually arose as the result of an ecclesiastical initiative. Prelates, abbots or dignitaries of a military Order of Chivalry would found the village or hamlet; the inhabitants would clear, prepare and cultivate their lands; a host or overseer, installed perhaps in a small manor house, would supervise the work. These rural townships also provided sanctuary for fugitives.

In a similar fashion, the castelnau (including Châteauneuf and Castets) originated with the dependencies built by a seigneur around his château. Auvillar (southwest of Agen), Mugron and Pau were once castelnaux. In Gascony the name Castelnau is completed by the name of the local fief; for example, Castelnau-Magnoac, Castelnau-Barbarens.

Bastides (1220–c. 1350)

The bastide was an entirely new concept, a purpose-built and efficiently planned town or village where people could live. By the middle of the 14C around 300 bastides had been created between Périgord and the Pyrénées. In Gascony and Guyenne these new towns were so numerous that it suggests that at one time they were the most important form of collective habitation in the region. Although not all of them were fully developed, and despite their relative lack of importance today – some have disappeared altogether – the bastides in their time were a genuine response to demographic, financial and economic needs as well as to military and political imperatives.

The construction of many bastides arose from a contract of paréage . Such contracts, frequently drawn up between the king and a local seigneur or between an abbot and a lay seigneur, could also permit two neighbouring seigneurs to detail the rights and powers of each over territories they might hold in common; or they could stipulate that a less powerful seigneur would enjoy the protection of his stronger neighbour in return for a fixed proportion of the former’s revenues. The contracts also affected the inhabitants of the bastide , establishing their status, outlining the allotment of building plots and specifying the taxes to be paid. To encourage people to move into the bastide , new arrivals were granted – among other privileges – the right of asylum and exemption from any military service due to the seigneur. The immigrants were free to bequeath property to their inheritors and dispose of their other possessions as they wished. Penalties, on the other hand, could be imposed on those who were slow to build.

Place names of the bastides followed three different principles: they could evoke the settlement’s status – Villefranche (Free Town); they could carry the name of the founder – Montréjeau (Mount Royal), Beaumarché, Hastingues (Hastings); or they could suggest a symbolic twinning with some famous foreign city such as Valence (after Valencia in Spain), Fleurance (Florence), Cologne or Tournay.

These settlements were fairly rigidly planned, based on the model of a right-angled grid, either square or rectangular (with the exception of Fourcès, a rare circular bastide ). Variations on this plan were due either to the lay of the land or to considerations of defence. The use of professional surveyors at the planning stage is evident in the rectilinear layout of the streets, always meeting each other at right-angles to form a symmetrical pattern of equal-area lots. Those moving in were allowed so much on which they could build, so much for a garden, and – outside the built-up area but not too far away – an allotment which they could cultivate.

The road system was ahead of its time: the principal streets were usually 8m/26ft wide, a generous size when none of the buildings had more than two floors.

In the centre of the grid was the main (and only) square, normally closed to traffic and reserved for markets; many of the central, covered market places still stand today. The square was effectively an open lot islanded among the regular ranks of buildings; the four streets framing it passed from the open air to the couverts, and then out again on the far side, retaining their continuity and frequently their street names. The couverts ,most of them unfortunately now truncated or lost altogether, were covered passages surrounding the square running beneath either stone-built arcades or projecting upper storeys supported by wooden pillars.

Bastide Churches

The proliferation of bastides from the 13C onwards led to the construction of many new churches. They were built either close to the market square or out on the periphery of the grid, on the specified lot assigned for church and cemetery; here, therefore, the Languedoc single-nave-no-transept style was particularly suitable. Churches in Gascony share a family likeness, with their belfry-porches (Mirande, Marciac) and their wide, dark naves lit mainly through the clerestory windows of a cramped apse.

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